How a Redistricting Case in Alabama Could Thwart Voting Rights for People of Color


For Letetia Jackson, voting is as important as drinking or breathing water. He has his mother to thank for nurturing that belief.

When Jackson was a mere girl in Alabama in the late 1960s, she always went to vote with her mother. On these trips, the mother would make clear the sanctity of the franchise. And why wouldn’t he? A few years earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was created to prohibit racial discrimination in voting, to ensure a greater level of equality for black Americans such as Jackson and his family.

“He would talk to me about how we have a responsibility to exercise our right to vote about people he died let’s have that right,” Jackson told CNN. “Even at 90 years old, my mother would want me to go find her and take her to vote. She made up her mind to vote.”

Jackson, a public policy advocate, reflected on those formative experiences during an uncertain time for voting rights. On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court in Merrill v. He heard Milligan, an Alabama redistricting case, which focuses on Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits any rule that “denies or abridges the right to vote because of race.” Jackson is the plaintiff in Merrill, one of the most significant election cases in recent years. Depending on the court’s decision, Merrill could give states more freedom to limit the political power of black and brown Americans and restrict access to public resources at the local level.

“It’s kind of surreal. It feels like we’re starting the fight for voting rights all over again,” Jackson said. “It’s almost as if we turned back the hands of time.”

Khadidah Stone, senior field and campaign strategist for Alabama Forward and another plaintiff, echoed some of those sentiments.

“This is an important moment in history, and everyone should be paying attention,” he told CNN. “But why are we even here? Why do we still have to fight for the right to vote?’

Here’s how Merrill can impact communities of color:

In Merrill, a January lower court opinion that blocked Alabama’s newly drawn congressional map is being reviewed for violating Section 2 of the VRA.

That map includes the only district where black voters can put their favorite candidate in office, even though black Americans make up 27 percent of the state’s voting-age population.

Because lower court judges ruled that black voters were “less likely than other Alabamians to elect the candidates they choose for Congress,” they told lawmakers to form a second majority district, Black or something close to it.

“This decision is a victory for black voters in Alabama, who have been denied equal representation for too long,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a January statement by the National Redistricting Foundation. “The court’s decision reminds us that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, but only when enough people come together and pull toward justice.”

However, Alabama then asked the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling. A 5-4 majority approved the state’s request.

One argument Alabama makes is that the harm of the VRA is that it essentializes race, that is, it gives districts to voters based on race and deepens divisions. But that claim completely misrepresents the VRA, according to Yurij Rudensky, a senior staff attorney at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, who filed an amicus brief in favor of the plaintiffs.

“The trial court (three-judge panel, Donald Trump has two candidates) found that at most, Alabama was willing to support candidates who averaged about 15% of the white voters in the relevant region (the Black Belt region). It also receives support from black voters,” Rudensky told CNN.

This type of polarized voting can skew how political leaders approach different groups and lead to different policy choices and perpetuate other inequalities.

“The VRA targets real discrimination,” Rudensky said. “When you have those kinds of dynamics — when white voters are turning away from the interests of black voters 85-15 — then there are tremendous incentives for politicians to take advantage of that racial polarization, to turn it into race. more A prominent feature of politics is the use of race to promote participation and drive a wedge between communities that may otherwise share economic or other interests”.

It is not the VRA, in other words, that increases the importance of race in public life, but the identification and treatment of areas of persistent racial disparity.

“I think a lot of the arguments for keeping this map in Congress and from some conservative corners of the court go back in terms of what makes race crucial and what it’s really about helping to bridge the divides that have plagued communities for decades,” Rudensky said.

It’s hard to beat Merrill’s bets.

“It’s a very important time,” Shalela Dowdy, a student at the Southern University Law Center and another plaintiff, told CNN. “The decision in this case could help shape the political power of Blacks in the South.”

It is worth noting that Alabama does not argue that the lower court misunderstood the VRA. Instead, the State asks the Supreme Court to reimagine the rules governing Article 2 claims.

A radical rewrite of Section 2, Rudensky said, “would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, for voters of color, as well as civil rights groups and community groups working with districts that face discrimination in their neighborhoods, to find relief.”

In recent years, voting rights advocates have depended on Section 2 protections as the VRA continues to suffer death by a thousand restrictions.

Voting rights advocates hand out signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court on February 27, 2013, as the court prepares to hear Shelby County vs. Holder.

Most famously, the 2013 Shelby County v. In Holder, the high court struck down Section 5 of the VRA, which freed jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting from requiring federal approval, or “preclearance,” before changing their election laws.

“Tossing the preemption when it has worked and continues to work to stop discriminatory amendments is like throwing an umbrella in a rainstorm because you don’t get wet,” said the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her famous dissent.

The rise of restrictive voting laws after Shelby proved his point.

Crucially, in Merrill, it’s not just the abstract concept of fair representation that hangs on.

“The logic behind the VRA is that with political equality comes a more natural solution to systemic inequalities in areas like education, housing, health and employment,” Rudensky said. “And the reality is that it is. When you look at places where voters of color have been systematically excluded – places with an unbroken legacy of discrimination – and where you’ve seen successful VRA enforcement, economic outcomes for black communities in particular have improved dramatically.

In other words, the VRA has created pathways to the middle class and economic self-sufficiency for racial groups that have long been marginalized in the United States.

Dowdy expressed similar sentiments. More precisely, he said, the redistricting has a direct effect on the allocation of power and public resources.

“When members of a community elect a candidate who shares their concerns and understands their needs, that’s how real change and empowerment can happen. Oftentimes, when you drive through predominantly Black neighborhoods, our neighborhoods don’t look the best. Because we don’t always have the right people fighting for us for the right resources,” Dowdy said.

He added, “It’s as simple as that.”

In the coming months, skilled court observers will have plenty to scrutinize. They will analyze the oral arguments and try to find out where the different judges stand on the case.

On Tuesday, members of the court’s conservative majority appeared to reject Alabama’s extreme arguments as they try to find a way to preserve the state’s congressional map.

Rudensky said if past years are any guide, we may issue an opinion by the end of the term because Merrill is an important case and will likely create sharp divisions on the court.

Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director of the ACLU of Alabama, which has been involved in the redistricting case, emphasized that what is at stake is the opportunity for voters of color to be heard.

“We’re still fighting the old battles,” he told CNN. “It shouldn’t be an open question whether or not black voters have equal opportunities to elect candidates.”

In a way, this moment is a reminder of just how valuable Jackson is to the franchise.

“It feels a lot like we (black Americans) were never really accepted as citizens of this country,” he said. “And this case reminds our young people, who have always had the right to vote, of our votes do it matter If our votes didn’t matter, they (legislators) wouldn’t be trying so hard to get this out of the way.”

Or as Dowdy put it, “it’s a reminder that we should never be comfortable.”

If there’s one takeaway from the concerted effort to limit access to the ballot box, it’s that ballot protections are precarious: they’re here one day, gone the next.